Basketball is full of different schemes, plays, sets, and the like. Across the board NBA teams have their own plays they have tucked away for particular times in a game, a crucial sideline out of bounds play (SLOB) or an end of game set (EOG), but what about all the time in between? If you look around the league nowadays you don’t see teams coming down and holding fingers up in the air on every possession.
Instead, more and more teams are moving to a free-flowing motion offense that relies on natural instincts and player freedom, making teams less predictable and unleashing players to show their natural gifts. The Trail Blazers are no different, and in fact they’re quickly becoming a team to watch specifically due to the creativity and shotmaking ability of their backcourt, led by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
While both are known for their ability to create for themselves and for others out of the pick-and-roll, it’s become evident early on in the season they’re both going to be involved in a lot more flare screen-type plays.
If you’re sitting there wondering what a flare screen is, what it looks like, and what the goal of the play is, you’re in luck because that’s exactly what we’re here to discuss. Throughout the season, we’ll have a series of playbook breakdowns as the Blazers unveil more of their offense and new wrinkles begin to pop up.
For the last couple of seasons, Blazers fans have been told there will be more of a focus on off-ball movement, and each season there’s been more of it installed. Throughout the preseason and through game No. 1 of the regular season, it seems as if the next stage of evolution in off-ball movement is in full effect. If you follow basketball Twitter at all during Blazers broadcasts you might’ve noticed some of the best and brightest out there picking up on the subtle changes to the Trail Blazers’ play style:
Blazers running a billion flare screens early— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) October 22, 2016
Blazers love that flare screen to McCollum, they've used it about 5 times already, Jazz haven't had much answer.— Ben Dowsett (@Ben_Dowsett) October 4, 2016
That’s two prime analysts who saw it two different nights and noticed it in the first few minutes of each game. This is not an accident, and these guys aren’t psychic. The Blazers appear to be featuring this wrinkle much more prominently in their offense this season.
So, what exactly is a flare screen? The easiest way to describe it is to show it:
clip courtesy @CoachClipboard
The play is initiated by Shabazz Napier handing off to Allen Crabbe as he steps up to receive the ball above the break. Ed Davis has set a down screen to free Crabbe up to catch with minimal pressure. Meanwhile, on the weakside (non-ball side), Maurice Harkless is setting the same screen for Evan Turner just a few seconds behind Davis. This allows Turner to come above the break and receive the swing pass from left to right from Crabbe. As this is happening, Napier is clearing down (the Zipper in the play) and he’s coming off a baseline screen being set by Harkless as he rounds the corner on the low block on the right side of the floor. The defense has fallen in ever so slightly as Napier darts through, but this is the decoy part of the play. As the defense sinks, Davis now slides underneath and sets the back pick on Crabbe’s man. This creates a seam and/or passing lane that Turner effortlessly floats the ball through to a now wide-open Crabbe as he flows into that open spot created by the defense sliding down and the back pick set by Davis. Voila! Threes please!
The beauty of the play is that it has so many built-in options. It’s essentially a read and react play that allows players to create on the fly as the defense reacts. Jump above any of the early screens and you have a lane to the basket. Don’t honor the cutter down the middle and you’ve got a free pass down the lane. Jump over the second screen on the intended flare and the shooter stops short and takes the elbow jumper. There are so many ways a play like this can go that defenses can’t sit on any one particular aspect. This is made doubly more dangerous when the players involved are at the level of shotmaking and shot-taking that Lillard and McCollum are accustomed to.
Here’s a couple examples of how Lillard made Russell Westbrook look foolish last year as Westbrook tried to anticipate where Lillard was going. He jumps above and gets caught, then he tries to take away one side only to get burned by the (slight) push off as he comes back to the original space to knock down the shot.
Why is this important for the Blazers? First, it shows their growth and evolution as a team, and as a unit. It takes time, practice, familiarity, and a high-level basketball IQ to execute this type of offense. You can’t just show up and anticipate what your teammate is going to do against a complex defensive scheme that’s built around taking away your strong points. More specifically, if a team is planning to attack Portland’s pick-and-roll offense, this is a direct counter to an overaggressive team.
If the Blazers’ opponent wants to come out high and try to chase the pick-and-roll away, they can hit them on the backside of the play instead of running the straight pick-and-roll. Instead of relying on getting that third playmaker involved, you only need someone who can pull the defense one way and another who can make the right pass at the right time. Which leads us to our next point: This is something that can be run by guys not named Lillard and/or McCollum, too.
In Tuesday’s opening night win against the Utah Jazz, the Trail Blazers ran flare screens for three of their first four 3-pointers made. These were shots knocked down by Lillard, McCollum, and Crabbe. We’ve already seen the play run with Napier, Crabbe, and Turner. At some point, expect to see Harkless, Meyers Leonard, and perhaps even Noah Vonleh worked into these sets as they can all work as screeners, passers, and shooters. This level of versatility allows Portland’s offense to maintain a level of attack that’s always on, particularly when paired with the bread and butter pick-and-roll offense. At times last year, for all of the Blazers’ playmaking and creativity they looked stagnant; predictable even. This new addition allows them to be more of a jazz band, riffing as they please, and a little less director-led orchestra that sticks to a script.
The Blazers are only one regular season game in and they’ve already got a new toy that looks to have upped the effectiveness of their already potent attack. At this point, you almost can’t wait to see what else coach Terry Stotts may have up his sleeve a month by January.